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“Embrace” a Painting by Pablo Picasso Essay

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Updated: Sep 6th, 2021


Abstract art, especially the work of Pablo Picasso, is always subject to individual interpretation yet always contains an underlying theme that expresses the “message” that the artist is attempting to convey to the viewer. It is due to this that before meticulously analyzing a particular painting it is important to first understand the inherent themes that that artist has placed into his previous work in order to gain a better perspective on what message he is trying to convey in the painting that is being examined.

When initially examining the painting “Embrace” it can be seen that it follows the Neo-expressionist style of artistry which is characterized by the use of the human body, recognizable objects and an almost roughly and somewhat emotionally violent method of expression. This can be seen in the incorporation of vivid colors into the various works and the banal color harmonies often seen in paintings of this particular nature. This style immerged during the early 1970’s to 1980’s and became quite popular with various abstract artists at the time.

Since the painting itself was created in 1971 this lends further evidence to the fact that it belongs to the Neo-expressionist style of abstract expressionist art. It must also be noted that Picasso has been known to incorporate the motif of sexuality into his various works, often times portraying themes related to violent sexual aggression, hidden desires and unconscious thoughts (Carbon, 191). Based on the fact that “Embrace” has now been identified as a belonging to the Neo-expressionist style and that Picasso often incorporated themes related to sexuality into his work “Embrace” can now be properly examined taking the various facts presented as a means of creating a sufficiently in depth analysis of the painting.

Analyzing the Aspects of Reality Invoked by “Embrace”

When examining “Embrace” what must first be taken into consideration is the fact that the Neo-expressionist style often incorporates the human body into the very art work itself (Carbon, 195). From this perspective it can actually be seen that the painting actually embodies the dual nature of humanity namely man and woman. The most obvious and telling sign of this interpretation is located right at the bottom where a penis and a vagina can be clearly seen. Furthermore towards the top portion of the painting two distinct faces can be seen however the sex of either one can’t be determined based on the face alone rather examining the striated lines on the right and left hand side of either face indicates the left face is male while the right is female.

This distinction is made possible due to the fact that the striated lines directly beside either face actually represent male and female hairstyles with the longer and swept back hairstyle on the right representing the long hair commonly associated with the female gender while the spiky and swept up hairstyle on the left representing a commonly known male hairstyle. This particular painting stays true to Picasso’s motif of incorporating sexuality into his works as it can be seen by the obvious representation of male and female genetalia in the work itself (McClemont, 74).

Aspects of reality invoked by this painting can be seen by first examining the faces represented in the painting itself. As mentioned earlier the painting represents the duality of humanity in the male and female genders but it actually represents the inequality between men and women inherent in society during Picasso’s time. What must be taken into consideration is the fact that Picasso often incorporated modern day events and actions into several of his works as it can be seen in the now famous “Guernica” which portrayed the horrors of war and its effect on civilians (Rollyson, 1 – 3). In the painting it can clearly be seen that while there are two faces and two sexes there is only one “mouth” evident in the painting which is located on the male face. The female face not only lacks a mouth but appears to be exuding a sense of silence in that it wishes to speak yet is unable to.

During the time when this particular painting was made the feminist movement had actually started in various parts of the world demanding equal rights between men and women. Taking this into consideration it can be interpreted that the painting actually represents the historic role of women in society in that their rights have always been “silenced” in favor of a male dominated culture. In fact as it can be seen in the painting the left had side dominates more space as compared to the right hand side which is actually indicative of the domination of males in society and the relatively minor role females have been relegated to.

Further more one of the most striking and realistic aspects of the painting itself is in the portrayal of the eyes wherein the eyes of the female face seem to show intense sorrow as indicated by the gently sweeping lines and method in which the eyeballs were painted. The eyes of the male face on the other hand show little emotion and merely stare straightforward. This portrayal of the eyes in such a manner is actually indicative of the sorrow of the female half of humanity in being unable to properly express themselves due to male domination while the eyes of the male half of the painting indicates indifference towards the plight of his female counterpart.

Further examination of the painting reveals three distinct methods of symbolism utilized, namely: the use of a clergy man’s outfit by the male half of the portrait, the child’s bib directly underneath the female half of the portrait and the sleeve of a traditional business suit. What must be understood is that the use of a clergy man’s outfit as seen by the distinct line and colors seen directly underneath the face of the man is actually indicative of the views of the church regarding the domination of males over females.

In fact the utilization of the sleeve on the bottom left part of the portrait further emphasizes this fact indicating only men have a right to business. This is indicative of the sexist views directed against women which are further emphasized by the bib located directly below the woman’s head which symbolizes the traditional role of women in the household. In its entirety the painting invokes the current reality of social system in which Picasso lived and his interpretation of the period’s historical perspective.

Interpreting the Use of Artistic Representation, Emotion and Movement in the Work

What must be understood when examining the work of Picasso is the fact that his work his more symbolic rather than representative. It represents a combination of views created in an abstract way which cannot be possibly rendered in a classical artistic representation due to the diversity of subjects involved. From it we can see his representation of the duality of mankind, the plight of women, the dominance of man through institutions such as the church and business, the traditional views of women as mothers and the fact that men are considered the providers of the family and not women. This combination of factors lends a work an incredibly deep evocation of the realities of the society Picasso saw and truly creates the need for deep introspection over the way in which roles in society have been held in place due to institutions such as the Church and various businesses.

Another method of interpreting the painting is to examine it on the basis of its title and how the figures within it exemplify it. From the title “Embrace” viewers already gain the notion that characters within it are meant to be embracing and as it can be seen there is an apparent moment of embrace however similar to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the “movement” of the piece appears to be stilled in that at the very moment of the embrace the characters are stopped. In fact the works are similar in that they both possess discontinuities on multiple levels with an apparent elision of limbs in one instance, abbreviation in another and sudden cleaving of the flesh and an apparent stylistic shift in the end.

The words of art critic, Leo Steinberg, in his interpretation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon posits that the painting itself possesses a theme of a reverse gaze in that it creates the apparent allusion that it is the subjects in the painting that are looking directly at the viewer. This is actually equally apparent in “Embrace” where the two subjects are apparently caught in mid-embrace and are looking directly at the viewer. The emotion in this particular piece is actually conveyed through the very eyes of the subjects within. In the eyes of the man an almost dispassionate gaze can be seen looking straight forward while in the eyes of the woman there is an apparent sorrow and longing. While this sorrow could be interpreted as it was earlier namely that it is an artistic rendering of women in society at the time it could also be interpreted as a woman about to embrace her lover after a long period of separation.

What must also be understood is that the movement theme in “Embrace” and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is an apparent merging of the figures into themselves in that one aspect of the figure apparently gets absorbed into the other. While this is only slight apparent in “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” it is wholly visible in “Embrace” wherein the apparent blending of man and woman becomes almost literal. What must be taken into consideration is that due to Picasso’s history of depicting sexual themes in his work “Embrace” could also be interpreted as a man and a woman having sex (Peiffer, 139).

While Picasso did not want to actually depict the act of the penis entering into the woman he did imply it by rendering both a penis and a vagina into the painting and letting the two figures in it apparently merge. This is in conjunction with the generally accepted notion that when a man and woman have sex they become “one”. The apparent movement of the figures into themselves depicts this in a symbolic way without actually showing the scene literally.

Comparing Picasso’s “Embrace” with Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”

In the painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, it can be seen that the incorporation of movement in this particular case is heavily influenced by facets related to stop motion photography wherein Duchamp attempted to embody every single movement of his subject in a series of descending actions with an apparent “movement shadow” facilitating one action to the next (Banham, 181). In this particular case it can be seen that Duchamp incorporates curves, angles and straight lines to emphasize the swivel of the hips, the movement of the legs and turning of the body.

In other words Duchamp quite literally captured the very “motions” of a person going down a flight of stairs and incorporated them into the art work. As such this particular work can actually be described as being quite literal in its depiction of movement in that the artist attempted to capture every single facet of how a person would move (Steloff, 838). Most of the actions involved are emphasized by the subject at hand and are not accentuated by the background making viewers concentrate more on the various depictions being created through the actions of the subject (Steloff, 838).

Comparatively the work of Picasso is not literal in its depiction of movement. As stated earlier, one interpretation of the work is embrace of lovers during sex however the act itself is not portrayed in a literal sense. Instead of a “literal” sense of movement Picasso utilizes more of a symbolic sense of movement wherein the blending in of the subjects into each other creates the symbolism necessary to depict the act of embracing and having sex (Bates, 68). Further more in this particular instance movement is not emphasized by the subjects themselves but rather through the background wherein the moment of the lines seem to go from the sides towards the center indicating an apparent movement of coming together. This can also be interpreted in sexual way as the act of copulation with opposing bodies coming together and thrusting.

Works Cited

Banham, Gary. “DUCHAMP’S ‘MECHANISTIC SCULPTURES’.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 4.3 (1999): 181. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO.Web.

Bates, Ellen. “Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings & Sculpture: Picasso in the Nineteenth Century; Youth in Spain II, 1897-1900.” Library Journal 133.16 (2008): 68-69. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Carbon, Clark et al. “When a Picasso is a “Picasso”: The entry point in the identification of visual art.” Acta Psychologica 133.2 (2010): 191-202. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.

McClemont, Douglas. “Picasso: The Printed Graphic Work 1966-1969. rev. ed./Picasso: The Printed Graphic Work 1970-1972. rev. ed.” Library Journal 130.2 (2005): 74. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Peiffer, Prudence. “Picasso: Art Can Only Be Erotic.” Library Journal 130.14 (2005): 139. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Rollyson, Carl. “A Life of Picasso.” Magill’s Literary Annual 1992 (1992): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Steloff, Frances. “MARCEL DUCHAMP.” Journal of Modern Literature 4.4 (1975): 838. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

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